The Color of Climate

The County With the Worst Air Pollution in the U.S. Just Voted to Drill for More Oil and Gas

Opponents of the move say most of the oil and gas wells will be drilled near Hispanic communities

Photo Illustration: Save As/Medium; Source: Getty Images

This is The Color of Climate, a weekly column from Future Human exploring how climate change and other environmental issues uniquely impact the future of communities of color.

On Monday, the Kern County Board of Supervisors in California voted to approve an ordinance that will allow fast-track permitting of tens of thousands of new oil and gas wells. The vote was unanimous, despite a months-long campaign waged by a coalition of county residents and environmental activists and eight hours of public testimony in opposition to the ordinance that the board heard on the day of the vote.

Kern County, which encompasses the Central California city of Bakersfield and the surrounding area, already has more than 35,000 active oil and gas wells. The ordinance will allow oil and gas companies to bypass individual environmental reviews when they seek to drill new wells. Its opponents fear that will further threaten the public health of a county that has some of the worst air pollution in the United States.

Now, opponents of the ordinance are appealing to California Gov. Gavin Newsom and state legislators. They hope either the state legislature or regulatory agencies will help protect them from the specter of additional oil and gas wells and all the emissions and pollution they would leave in their wake.

Kern County is the largest oil- and gas-producing region in California, a state that has cast itself as a leader in climate action and environmental justice in recent years but is still the seventh-biggest producer of oil in the country. Whether Newsom or legislators act to protect Kern could determine the future of oil and gas in the rest of the state because the region plays such a large role in the California’s energy portfolio — 80% of onshore oil and gas comes from Kern.

“The oil industry has already come at a heavy price for Kern,” Ingrid Brostrom, assistant director of the Center for Race, Poverty, and the Environment (CRPE), one of the groups opposing the ordinance, told the board. “The county’s past dependence on this sector has not brought wealth or stability to the region. Instead, the region consistently ranks near the top for poverty and unemployment rates. It has the worst air quality in the nation.”

Kern County residents and environmental groups also fear that many of the new wells will be drilled in parts of the county with large Hispanic populations, like Arvin, a city in Kern that’s 94% Hispanic or Latino. In 2014, a gas pipeline leak in Arvin forced people from their homes for several months. Additional oil and gas leaks as recent as 2020 have been documented by the FracTracker Alliance.

“Currently we live in kind of a toxic soup… The wind is literally carrying methane and toxins from fossil fuels,” Tereza Luque, an Arvin resident, told the Board of Supervisors on Monday. “The existence of these wells and their use affects less-privileged communities.”

Employees of oil and gas companies like Chevron, Aera Energy, and California Resources Corporation also called in to voice support for the ordinance on Monday. “Protecting people and the environment is a core value of Chevron,” said Billy Lockabie, vice president of Chevron’s San Joaquin region, which is headquartered in Bakersfield. “So we appreciate the county’s work on this important and comprehensive environmental review.”

Environmental groups, including the CRPE, Sierra Club, Central California Environmental Justice Network, and Pacific Environment, are calling on state legislators to pass SB 467, a bill calling for amendments to existing gas and oil codes. Introduced to the California State Senate in mid-February, the bill proposes a provision that will require a 2,500-foot buffer zone between oil operations and homes, schools, prisons, and health care facilities.

Kern County politicians who disagree with the board’s decision, like Delano Mayor Bryan Osorio, are calling for relief from the state level. Delano is 77% Hispanic or Latino.

“We should be prioritizing our region’s environment and community’s public health with a long-term focus on creating sustainable jobs. Unfortunately, with today’s vote, our county leaders did not put Kern County first,” Osorio said in a press release from the Sierra Club. “They have disappointed our at-risk communities while ignoring their health concerns. Now, we look to our state legislators to pass SB467 and put our communities and our environment where they should be: first.”

The setback provision of SB 467 was actually part of another bill that died in the California Senate in August 2020 after facing opposition from Republicans and the oil industry. Scott Weiner, the Democratic state senator from San Francisco who co-authored SB 467, acknowledged that it will be difficult to get the bill through the state legislature.

“It’s a hard, hard bill, but it’s a righteous bill, and we’re going to do everything we can to get as much of it passed as we possibly can,” Weiner told the Desert Sun.

“Currently we live in kind of a toxic soup… The wind is literally carrying methane and toxins from fossil fuels.”

Even if SB 467 doesn’t pass, Newsom can take action through state regulatory agencies, like the state’s Department of Conservation, to put the 2,500-foot buffer zones in place. But he hasn’t said much about the current bill or the Kern County vote in recent weeks and is expected to stand by the local ordinance, political experts and insiders told Politico.

This won’t stop citizens, activists, and advocacy groups from pushing Newsom to take decisive action, and pressure is now coming from all levels of government and both sides of the political spectrum. Local, regional, and state politicians and government officials; environmentalists; and the state’s powerful oil and gas lobby are calling for the governor to act. They all understand that the stakes are high: What happens in Kern County could determine whether or not California will truly divest from fossil fuels and invest in renewable energy.

Newsom has issued executive orders gesturing toward support for both fossil fuels and renewable energy. In September 2019, he signed an order into law directing two of the state’s biggest pension funds to invest in renewable energy. And a year later, he signed another into law that called for all new cars and passenger trucks sold in California to be zero-emission vehicles and for the state to take action to divest from fossil fuels while supporting workers in those industries. It’s investments like the one called for in 2019 that make the plans Newsom laid out in 2020 possible. But these overtures aren’t going to mean as much if California is still clinging to its oil and gas economy and putting the health of communities at risk while doing so.

“We all know that difficult roads lie ahead for the oil industry,” Ingrid Brostrom of the CRPE said on Monday. “Rather than tie itself to a dying industry, the board should focus on creating new opportunities for Kern County residents, and especially fossil fuel workers.”

Drew Costley is a Staff Writer at FutureHuman covering the environment, health, science and tech. Previously @ SFGate, East Bay Express, USA Today, etc.

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